Three Little Secrets
Pocket Star Books, March 2006
|Excerpt from the novel Three Little Secrets|
The walk along the river was not a long one, and the breeze blowing in off the Thames helped clear Merrick’s head. The sun was unusually warm for May, and both he and Lord Wynwood were compelled to loosen their neckcloths. Soon they reached an area of excavation where six sweat-stained men were assiduously digging out a cellar. Adjacent, three masons were mortaring the stone foundation of a second house, and beyond that, carpenters were framing up the skeleton of yet a third. Running up the street beyond them were another ten terraced houses, the next nearer completion than the one before it.
“Good Lord,” said Wynwood, surveying the scene. “This is like a mill without walls—except that you are churning out houses instead of stockings.”
“Just so,” said Merrick. “And therein lies a part of the cost savings—or perhaps I should say profit. Now, do you wish a corner house?”
“I should prefer it, yes.”
“Well, the topmost house has been spoken for,” said Merrick. “Rosenberg sent the papers last week. You will have to wait on these two at the bottom of the hill.”
Wynwood’s face fell. “Blast!” he said. “That house above is perfect.”
“But it will take the wind coming off the river,” said Merrick with a shrug. “So will be more expensive to heat. Besides, a widow from Yorkshire has already contracted for it.”
Wynwood winked. “Contracted—but not yet taken title, eh?” he said. “Come, Merrick, we are old friends. The heating means nothing to me. And you do not even know this woman. What if I paid the costs associated with breaking the contract?”
“My word is my bond,” said Merrick coldly. “Chose another, my friend. Or go back to Belgravia and buy one of those white monstrosities from Tom Cubitt. It is neither here nor there to me.”
“Yes, yes, you are right, of course,” Wynwood had the grace to look embarrassed. “I am just desperate to please my wife. These lower houses are lovely. But they are not even. One will sit a little higher up the hill, will it not?”
“Yes, and I shall use it to good advantage,” said Merrick. “If they are connected by short flights of stairs in the public rooms, it will have the feel of two houses, but there will be a measure of privacy on the upper floors. I can design it such that musical rooms and Bergonzi’s parlor are on one side, and the school room and nursery needs are confined to the other. Two dining rooms, even, if you wish.”
“That sounds perfect.” Wynwood scrubbed a hand thoughtfully along his jaw. “Now, what will the interior look like generally? That’s the part females concern themselves with. I must give Vivie a full report.”
“I can show you the house at the top of the hill”. Merrick extracted a key from his coat pocket. “The millwork, the joinery, the floors and ceilings, all that will be similar unless you wish otherwise.”
There were no workmen near the top of the hill, and the din of construction faded into the distance as they walked. Still, Merrick could hear a muffled banging noise from within the topmost house as they went up the steps. How very odd.
Wynwood turned to Merrick with a quizzical look. “Someone is inside.”
“They damned well oughtn’t be,” said Merrick. “The first coat of paint went on yesterday, and has scarce had time to dry.”
The banging did not relent. Merrick twisted the key, and went in. Sun glared through the large, undraped windows, leaving the air stifling hot, and rendering the smell of paint almost intolerable. At once, he and Wynwood started toward the racket—a side parlor which opened halfway along the central corridor. A tall, slender woman with cornsilk colored hair stood with her back to them, banging at one of the window-frames with the heels of her hands.
Merrick looked at Wynwood. “Excuse me,” he said tightly. “The buyer, I presume.”
“I shall just wander upstairs,” said Wynwood, starting up the staircase. “I wish to size up the bedchambers.”
“Oh, bloody damned hell!” said the woman in the parlor.
Merrick strode into the room. “Good God, stop banging on the windows!”
The woman shrieked, and spun halfway around. “Oh!” She pressed both hands to her chest. “Oh, God! You nearly gave me heart failure!”
“It would be a less painful end than bleeding to death, I daresay.”
“I beg your pardon?” She turned to face him, and inexplicably, his breath hitched. Her cool blue eyes searched his face.
“The paint sticks the windows shut,” he managed to explain. “They must be razored open, ma’am. And if you persist in pounding at the sash, you’re apt to get a gashed wrist for your trouble.”
“Indeed?” Her eyebrows went up a little haughtily as she studied him. For a moment, he could not get his lungs to work. Dear God in heaven.
No. No, it could not be.
Merrick’s thoughts went skittering like marbles. There must be some mistake. That damned wedding yesterday—that trip to the church—it had disordered his mind.
“Well, I shall keep your brilliant advice in mind,” she finally went on. “Now, this room was to be hung with yellow silk, not painted. Dare I hope that you are someone who can get that fixed?”
“Perhaps.” Merrick stepped fully into the room to better see her. “I am the owner of this house.”
The brows inched higher. “Oh, I think not,” she said, her voice low and certain. “I contracted for its purchase on Wednesday last.”
“Yes, from my solicitors, perhaps,” said Merrick. Good God, surely . . . surely he was wrong. For the first time in a decade, he felt truly unnerved. “I—er, I employ Mr. Rosenberg’s firm to handle such transactions,” he managed to continue. “Pray look closely at your contract. You will see that the seller is MacGregor & Company.”
But her look of haughty disdain had melted into one of grave misgiving. “And—and you would be Mr. MacGregor, then?” There was more than a question in her words. There was a pleading; a wish to avoid the unavoidable. Her dark green eyes slid down the scar which curved the length of his face. She was not sure. But he was. Dear God, he was.
“You look somewhat familiar,” she went on. “I am . . . I am Lady Bessett. Tell me, have—have we met?”
Dear God! Had they met? A sort of nausea was roiling in his stomach now. He could feel the perspiration breaking on his brow. He opened his mouth with no notion of what he was to say. Just then, Wynwood came thundering down the stairs.
“Eight bedchambers, old chap!” The earl’s shouting echoed through the empty house. “So a double would have sixteen, am I right?” He strode into the room, then stopped abruptly. “Oh, I do beg your pardon,” he said, his eyes running over the woman. “My new neighbor, I collect? Pray introduce me.”
Merrick felt as if all his limbs had gone numb. “Yes. Yes, of course.” He lifted one hand by way of introduction. “May I present to you, ma’am, the Earl of Wynwood. Wynwood, this is . . . this is . . . ” The hand fell in resignation. “This is Madeleine, Quin. This is . . . my wife.”
The woman’s face had drained of all color. She made a strange little choking sound, and in a blind, desperate gesture, her hand lashed out as if to steady herself. She grasped at nothing but air. Then her knees gave, and she crumpled to the floor in a pool of dark green silk.
“Christ Jesus!” said Wynwood. He knelt, and began to pat at her cheek. “Ma’am, are you all right? Ma’am?”
“No, she is not all right,” said Merrick tightly. “She can’t get her breath. This air—the paint—it must be stifling her. Quick, get back. We must get her air.”
As if she were weightless, Merrick slid an arm under Madeleine’s knees, then scooped her into his arms. A few short strides, and they were outside in the dazzling daylight.
“Put her in the grass,” Wynwood advised. “Good God, Merrick! Your wife? I thought—thought she was dead! Or—or gone off to India! Or some damned thing!”
“Athens, I believe,” said Merrick. “Apparently, she has come back.”
Gently, he settled Madeleine in the small patch of newly-sprouted grass. She was coming round now. His heart was in his throat, his mind racing with questions. Wynwood held one of her hands, and was patting at it vigorously. On his knees in the grass, Merrick set one hand on his thigh, and dropped his head as if to pray.
But there was little to pray for now.
He had prayed never to see Madeleine again. God had obviously denied him that one small mercy. He pinched his nose between two fingers, as if the pain might force away the memories.
Madeleine had managed to struggle up onto her elbows.
“I say, ma’am.” Wynwood was babbling now. “So sorry. Didn’t mean to frighten you. Are you perfectly all right? Haven’t seen old Merrick in a while, I collect? A shock, I’m sure. Yes, yes, a shock.”
“Shut up, Quin,” said Merrick.
“Yes, yes, of course,” he agreed. “I shan’t say a word. Daresay you two have lots to catch up on. I—I should go, perhaps? Or stay? Or—no, I have it! Perhaps Mrs. MacLachlan would like me to fetch some brandy?”
On this, the lady gave a withering cry, and pressed the back of her hand to her forehead.
“Do shut up, Quin,” said Merrick again.
His eyes widened. “Yes, yes, I meant to do.”
Madeleine was struggling to her feet now. Her heavy blonde hair was tumbling from its arrangement. “Let me up,” she insisted. “Stand aside, for God’s sake!”
“Oh, I shouldn’t get up,” Wynwood warned. “Your head is apt to be swimming still.”
But Madeleine had eyes only for Merrick—and they were blazing with hot green rage. “I do not know,” she hissed, “what manner of ill-thought joke this is, sir. But you—you are not my husband.”
“Now is hardly the time to discuss it, Madeleine,” Merrick growled. “Let me summon my carriage and see you safely to your lodgings.”
But Madeleine was already backing away, her face a mask of horror. “No,” she choked. “Absolutely not. You—you are quite mad. And cruel, too. Very cruel. You always were. I came to see it, you know. I did. Now stay away from me! Stay away! Do you hear?”
It was the closest she came to acknowledging she even knew him. And then she turned, and hastened up the hill on legs which were obviously unsteady.
A gentleman would have followed her at a distance, just to be sure she really was capable of walking. Merrick no longer felt like a gentleman. He felt . . . eviscerated. Gutted like a fish, and left to rot in the heat of his wife’s hatred.
Lord Wynwood watched her go, his hand shielding his eyes as they squinted into the sun. “You know, I don’t think she much cares for you, old chap,” he said when Madeleine’s skirts had swished round the corner and out of sight.
“Aye, that would explain her thirteen-year absence, would it not?” said Merrick sourly.
“More or less,” his friend agreed. “I hope you were not looking forward to a reconciliation?”
“Just shut up, Quin,” said Merrick again.
Wynwood seemed to take no offense, but nor did he listen. “Tell me, Merrick,” he said. “Have you any of that fine Finlaggan whisky in your desk?”
“Bloody well right I do. A full bottle.”
Wynwood let his hand fall. “Well, it’s a start,” he said, turning and heading down the hill.